|Tuesday, February 4
Updated: February 5, 8:39 AM ET
No denying decline of Duke-UNC
By Gregg Doyel
Special to ESPN.com
DURHAM, N.C. -- In the good old days -- and some of us college basketball fans on Tobacco Road didn't know just how good they were -- Duke-North Carolina was the rivalry that launched a thousand copycats.
You've probably heard of something ESPN likes to call "Rivalry Week," yes? With all due respect to the potato state, where do you think Rivalry Week got started, with Idaho-Idaho State?
In recent years, some people have come to think a number of rivalries were on par with Duke-Carolina: Missouri and Kansas, Kentucky and Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, Cincinnati and Xavier, Indiana and Purdue, Gonzaga and Pepperdine.
Those are very good games, but Duke-North Carolina was great. For a quarter-century, Duke-North Carolina was a potential prelude to a Final Four or even a national championship grudge match.
Somehow, despite their five combined national titles and 19 Final Four appearances from 1977-2001, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels avoided each other in the deepest recesses of the NCAA Tournament. That surely was the act of a merciful God who didn't want to see the havoc it would cause for one school to play the other in the Final Four. March Madness? Brother, we've got no idea how mad it could have been.
"I wouldn't wish that on either school," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski once said, referring to a loss to the other in the Final Four.
Yeah, well, who needed a Final Four battle, anyway? The regular-season rivalry was plenty good enough. Truly, it was great.
As recently as two years ago, Duke and North Carolina were ranked in the top four for their regular-season finale. With Dick Vitale warming up his vocal cords and hundreds of media crowding into the Smith Center for a look, UNC center Brendan Haywood surveyed the pregame scene and said, "It's what everybody in America wants to see."
They may still want to watch, but only in the sense that people rubber-neck at car accidents, too.
The old gray rivalry just ain't what she used to be. Since Dean Smith retired after the 1996-97 season, Duke has dominated the Tar Heels almost as thoroughly as it has dominated everyone else, winning 11 of the 14 matchups.
While the Duke-North Carolina game remains the game(s) of the year to each teams' proud fan base, nationally many would say Duke-Maryland game has surpassed it. And that's probably true.
The Terps have played Duke to a near draw over the past nine contests, winning four, and have combined with Duke to wage some of the most memorable games in the last three years. It was Maryland, not North Carolina, that ended Duke's 46-game home winning streak in February 2000. It was at Maryland, not North Carolina, where Duke staged one of the more amazing final-minute comebacks in college basketball history in January 2001. And it was Duke-Maryland, not Duke-North Carolina, that produced an epic Final Four matchup two months later.
Meanwhile, Duke has won 10 of the last 11 meetings with North Carolina, all but one by a double-figure margin. In Duke's current five-game winning streak against the Tar Heels, the average margin of victory has been 23 points.
The first sentence of the Associated Press' story last season, after Duke waltzed into the Smith Center and demolished the Tar Heels 87-58, went like this:
"It's not much of a rivalry if one team constantly beats the other."
That's a bit harsh, if not a bit hyperbolic, but this rivalry is what it is. One sided. While UNC coach Matt Doherty paid for the recruiting mistakes of his predecessors last season, going 8-20, Duke went 31-4. The Blue Devils were so much better that Doherty tried to win their ACC tournament matchup by throwing slime into the Duke machine. The Tar Heels slowed the pace as much as the 35-second shot clock would allow, dribbling until the final seconds before hoisting whatever shot they could manage, and for almost 35 minutes the strategy worked despite hoots from the crowd. Duke pulled away 60-48, after which Doherty said, "You don't want to play that way, but it was our only chance."
This season is different, what with the Blue Devils not quite as good as in past years and the Tar Heels not nearly as bad as last season. If UNC freshman center Sean May weren't out with a broken foot, the Tar Heels could have been expected to mount a major challenge to the Blue Devils on Wednesday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Even without May, North Carolina has won (at home) against Connecticut, though that victory was followed by losses to Maryland, N.C. State and Georgia Tech.
Krzyzewski fends off questions about the Tar Heels, saying his team's biggest game of the season is the next one on the schedule, but Doherty -- who played for North Carolina from 1981-84 -- takes a more believable approach.
"I think about playing Duke a lot ... even in the summer time," Doherty said. "It was special when I played, and it still is."
While Doherty's recruiting efforts may yet return the Tar Heels to their former territory, they enter their biggest regular-season game of the year trying to fend off the Duke dinosaur with sticks and stones.
Not that Krzyzewski is lulled into complacency.
"There's too much pride for either side to let down," he said. "Especially in this game."
Krzyzewski respects the Tar Heels almost as much as he wants to beat them, which is why at one point last season, with his team winning by 37 points in the Smith Center, he spent a late timeout giving his players a history lesson.
"Just remember where you're at," he told his team. "This is a place that has produced amazing basketball for four decades, and will continue to do that."
In the meantime, there's always Gonzaga-Pepperdine.
Gregg Doyel covers college basketball for The Charlotte Observer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.